I think a lot of people have seen the Anthem dev blog post late last week, what with Christian looking like quite a few WFH folks. The last time I heard a peep about Anthem dev work was in the fall, when they were re-tooling. Which was cool to see that EA wasn’t giving up on what they had poured sweat into. I do think that Anthem has a lot going for it, but lack of cohesive development (and suspected lack of experience) threw bad game out the door.
The post doesn’t go into too many details, but there are some larger items that poke out. The team is only 30 large, and they are in the prototyping phase. I am somewhat surprised by that, as it often means that this is an idea-generation phase of a project. They throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks. If you were looking at a 4 year dev cycle, this would be the first 6 months. But that’s if they were building from scratch.
Anthem has a ton of stuff already pre-built. The art, music and lore assets are already there. The combat mechanics (aim/move/shoot) stuff works pretty good too. The moment-to-moment portions have always worked well. Sure, there’s some number tweaking required to get the TTK stuff in line, but overall, that part works.
What’s missing is the systems, the parts you can’t see but impact everything else you do. The vertical aspects of the game are simply broken. The game locks skills behind weapons, and then puts stats on those weapons. It also adds skill boosting effects on rare weapon types. It then balances the game against you having great stats, and access to those unique skills.
I’m going to time travel now, back to when Diablo 3 launched, with a game-built auction house. Reaper of Souls (RoS) took all the garbage out and delivered a friggin’ amazing game, so it may be hard to recall what D3 looked like. To it’s advantage, skills were not weapon based. Player damage was (and to a significant degree, still is). Game difficulty was based on having god-tier stats, which had insanely low drop rates. RNG was not loaded, meaning you could find a Barbarian weapon with caster stats as much any anything else. These stat pools made it so that the AH was the efficient way of powering up (other than grinding dozens of hours). Sets/uniques didn’t matter because they simply couldn’t roll high enough stats, so there was no real variety in gameplay. You’d be playing with the same skills at max, grinding the same spots, forever. If ever there was a poster child for bad game direction, it would be D3 with Jay Wilson (this is a generic topic for later).
D3 launched in November 2012 . Jay Wilson “resigned” in Jan 2013. RoS launched in March 2014. 1.0.4 gave paragon levels and 1.0.5 gave monster power (which evolved into Torment). RoS was announced ~6 months before launch. Dev timelime estimates plug this at RoS starting work before D3 actually launched, and taking a different stride when Jay left. ~9 months of system design, and 6 months of polish. RoS didn’t launch with many new systems, it just fixed the broken ones.
Setting expectations here is important. I don’t think it’s possible for Anthem to launch in a state ready to compete with anything on the market. The Division and Destiny are stable and successful. Their systems generally work, but there’s always some number tweaking required. They add new systems to streamline and add variety to the vertical progression path.
System-wise, Anthem needs a rebuild. The grouping/instance stuff is ok, though there are some bugs. The art style works, though adding extra indicators to spot enemies from the background would be neat. Things that really need to be looked at:
- Open World. Frostbite 3 is used to host large PvP battles. There’s no technical reason this can’t support better options for Anthem except for development experience/time. The actual mechanics are found in almost every online game out there.
- Player skills. A separate “rune-based” system to access skill loadouts, with achievements/quests/unique slots to unlock the rare variants. There should be no stats assigned to player skill slots.
- RNGsus. There are already massive improvements in this space, where there are weight based drops. Quality drops are better now than at launch. The gap that remains is the range of random. A unique drop must always be viable, just not optimal.
- Slot weight attributes. There are basic stats (hp/power) and then there are slot stats. Gloves should have stats that only show up on gloves.
- Stat balancing. There are god stats, power stats, and flavor stats. God stats are things you will sacrifice anything to obtain. Magic Find / Rarity increase is a good example. They should never be in a game. Power stats are linked to the damage you deal and take. More combos, more damage, more health. These stats are found on all piece, with ranges that reflect their rarity. In no case should a rare glove be better than a unique glove. Flavor stats are things that add options to a playstyle. More flight time, more ammo, clip size and so on. These are optional stats, that are limited to the slot.
- Difficulty balance. A choice for when the player power curve starts to tick inwards determines how difficulty is balanced. Today the game is balanced around “fresh” players, “maxed” players and then a no-man’s land in the middle. The gap here is that the power range is so large, that it’s massive jumps between.
- Crafting. Adding an RNG element to crafting like Kunai’s Cube would be good. Balancing the odds on this vs. crafting materials is important.
- Player structure. Open world is designed for single player, missions are designed for 4 players. The group model combat structure works in terms of group synergies, but not in terms of power curves. This ties into difficulty balancing more than much else.
I think the important thing here is that there’s no re-inventing the wheel required. The main benefit of coming into the game late means you can refine existing systems. There are at least 3 AAA games to pull from. Hundreds of others if you cast a wide net. There is a “buffet” problem of too much choice, and some systems that just won’t work with each other. Game direction therefore becomes ultra important.
Time to Wait
This is already a long post, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of dev work left to relaunch Anthem. 30 people in a prototype stage is at least a year from any reasonable launch. The desire is clearly there. Now what’s a question is the actual investment.